Columbus discovers cannibals
Explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) coined the word ‘cannibal’. The inhabitants of the South American islands (today’s Caribbean Islands), where Columbus landed, introduced themselves as ‘Caribs’. However, because Columbus thought he had landed in Asia he thought they said something like ‘kahn’ (the surname of the Mongolian emperor, Kublai Kahn). Later this changed to ‘cannibals’. It is thought that the cannibals ate pieces of their dead enemy, but they never ate complete bodies although Columbus claimed in his journals that they did.
The result: Spanish Queen Isabella proclaimed in 1503 that every traveller who encountered a man eater could take him to be his slave. From that moment there were suddenly a lot of travellers who encountered ‘cannibals’, who they put to work in the gold mines.
Andrej Tjikatilo – The real Hannibal Lecter
The most famous cannibal on the silver screen is Hannibal Lecter from the blockbuster movie The Silence of the Lambs (1991). He eats the livers of his victims with a ‘cold glass of Chianti’. Did you know that the character in the film is based on a real person? Russian Andrej Tjikatilo was an (apparently) decent father who just happened to eat 56 people. The lust for human flesh originated from his youth, just as the main character in the film. Tjikatilo’s brother supposedly had been eaten by hungry Russian soldiers during WWII. When the man eater was arrested in the ’80s he kindly helped with research, just as film character Lecter did in the movie. Tjikatilo was eventually executed in 1994.
Humans are covered in wholesome meat
Most of us find the thought of eating human flesh disgusting. This became apparent from fierce international reaction to a Dutch television programme called Guinea pigs. Presenters Dennis Storm and Valerio Zeno ate a piece of each other’s body in an experiment. The act is not specifically forbidden and nobody was killed or got hurt. However, the whole world was up in arms over the ‘Dutch cannibals’. The Good Morning America show called the experiment the most disgusting news of the day and German site RTL thought that it showed bad taste. Eating a fellow human is something for disturbed people. Over the centuries cannibalism was practiced in many parts of the world, including Africa. Why did it stop? Is human meat not tasty or nutritious? What else plays a role?
• Everybody ate everybody
When we think of cannibals, we imagine a native with a bone in his nose dancing around a white man in a pot of boiling water. We get these images mostly from famous 15th century explorer, Christopher Columbus. He wrote about native tribes that ate humans by the dozens. However, these wild stories spun by Columbus were never proven.
But that cannibalism happened on a small scale is certain. Toon van Meijl, professor of anthropology at the Radbout University (NL) explained: “Human bones have been found in many places with imprints of human teeth. For instance, human bones have been discovered between other food remains of the Homo antecessor, a European primate that lived about 800,000 years ago. Pagan priests thought the body parts and blood of humans had magical medical powers in the Middle Ages. Traces of cannibalism have also been found on the Fiji islands and at Papua New Guinea as well as among tribes in Africa, Oceania, Asia and South America. In short: the whole world has eaten some human flesh at some stage.
“Eating men was often part of war rituals,” added van Meijl. There was nothing worse for a Maori soldier than to be eaten. Other tribes used cannibalism for spiritual endeavours. In some tribes women and children ate the brains of deceased men. By doing so they hoped to take over the powers of their male counterparts.
• Human meat fills you up
Cannibalism doesn’t happen often these days. That does seem strange though. After all, why go through the trouble of hunting deer or rabbit when you can just eat your fellow man? That said, there have been cases where humans were forced to eat each other out of sheer necessity. According to van Meijl, cannibalism mainly had a spiritual meaning. Does this mean that human flesh is not nutritional? It is, explained Professor Henk Haagsman of the University of Utrecht (NL). “50% of the human body comprises muscles. That is meat. This no doubt has excellent nutritional value.” Nutritional researchers of the University of Michigan in the United States found out something more precise in 1970. They deduced that a man weighing 50kg has about 30kg of edible meat. This translates into about four kilos of protein. Every human needs a daily dose of one gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight. So a man weighing 70kg would take 57 days to consume such a small man. The Uruguayan national rugby team took the test in 1972, although they were forced to resort to cannibalism after the aeroplane carrying them crashed in the isolated Andes Mountains. Their only chance of survival was to eat the flesh of the dead passengers. The substance seemed quite nutritional. The rugby players managed to survive for 72 days before they were rescued.
• It’s like eating tuna
So why don’t we eat human flesh more often if it has a high nutritional value? It may have something to do with the taste if you believe the testimony of some human flesh eaters. The presenters of the programme Guinea pig thought that the pieces of fried stomach and buttocks tasted like fillet steak. Famous German cannibal Armin Meiwes, who ate a voluntary victim, declared that fried penis was rather tough. The rest of the body boiled with nutmeg was edible in his opinion. Human eater Issei Sagawa from Japan compared the taste of raw human flesh with that of tuna: mild and soft. According to Korowai Batu from Papua New Guinea, whose ancestors ate their enemies, the meat tastes like cassowary, a large flightless bird. The taste of fattier parts, such as female breasts, would taste like pig’s meat. Hence, there isn’t exactly anything wrong with the taste then. Also, wouldn’t a meal of human flesh now and then be the solution for many countries’ food scarcity problems? It may be a matter of getting used to the idea. Anthropologist Van Meijl added: “In theory, we could get used to any food. The Aborigines in Australia are crazy about white fatty larvae. I didn’t want to eat with them until I was there for research. Such food is typically something you have to learn to eat. This wouldn’t be any different with human meat.”
• Brain snack makes you sick
Still, there is more to the explanation as to why we are disgusted by the thought of eating human flesh. “The reluctance against human flesh is very deep,” stated Van Meijl. He has a clear idea where this comes from: it is unhealthy. Women and children of the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea ate the brains of their deceased men thinking that they could take over their powers. But in reality the brain was full of prions, a protein particle that is believed to be the cause of brain diseases such as scrapie and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. The tribes-people who ate the brains of their deceased developed kuru, something that resembles Cruezfeldt-Jacob disease. In a short space of time, many eaters were shaking wrecks. It was later found that kuru also has similarities with the mad cow disease which is also caused by prions (cows get the disease because the brains of other cattle are mixed in with their food). This was enough reason for the Fore tribe to stop the cannibalism rituals. But this was purely because of health reasons and not necessarily because of moral objections, explained Van Meijl. “And I suspect that it went like this all over the world. People discovered that they got sick from the meat. That is why they ate less and less and eventually stopped with it.”
• Taboo helps group
Ultimately it seems that the most important reason why cannibalism is no longer around is because human flesh is not healthy for us. We’ve learned a lesson. Every civilisation realised at a certain moment that human flesh was not a healthy option. That is how we finally got a distaste for cannibalism and also why it upsets us when we hear that it has happened. Van Meijl stated: “You can compare the distaste for cannibalism to another big taboo: incest.” It became apparent that you should not have children with a close relative because chances are that you could have a baby with deformations. The Spanish royal house, which up until the 17th century ruled large parts of the world, has a history of 200 years of inter-family marriages. And the same goes for the cannibals. If you eat humans you will get sick and your survival chances will diminish. According to Van Meijl, man eaters have become extinct as a group.